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Friday, 31 October 2014

Saturday Story - 'Criminal Damage'

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Nik Morton

A Leon Cazador short story from Spanish Eye

Guardia Civil sirens wailed, coming closer.

Alfredo Benitez was slumped in the bulldozer’s cab, leaning over the controls. His huge shoulders shook as he wept.

The machine’s engine growled as I walked gingerly across the debris. ‘You’d better get down!’ I called above the noise. ‘They’ll be here in a minute!’

Raising his head, Alfredo nodded. Streaks of moisture had washed channels of anguish down his dust-covered cheeks. Switching off the engine, he surveyed the damage.

When the new urbanization was planned, it sent shock waves through the neighbouring town of Pozo de Abajo. Alfredo’s home had been in the Benitez family for over a hundred years. But history meant nothing to the grey suited men in the town hall. Josip Paz was the mayor and just happened to be the cousin of the builder awarded the contract. It was quite plain to all that he didn’t care what new laws were passed to appease the EU busybodies. By the time anyone did something about it, I suspected that Paz would be out of office and sunning himself on a Colombian beach.

Devious Pozo de Abajo town hall officials and their local builders had already carved up the land, disregarding the plight of the current inhabitants, who were Spanish, British and Norwegian.

Raquel Benitez was one of them. She was eighty-four, Alfredo’s sister. She still ran the household like her mother before her, though these days she allowed the use of a washing machine and a television, which never seemed to get switched off. Global warming was quite alien to Raquel. She was thin and short, about five feet nothing in her thin black canvas shoes, and her features were wizened. Whenever I visited, Raquel would laugh at some joke or memory; her laughter rose up from her stomach and gushed loudly past dentures she’d inherited from her father. This time when I called by, she was not laughing. She sat in the lounge in an ancient mahogany chair, her back upright. Raquel’s whole body suffered from a marked tremor, but this was her mind quaking, not the ground she had lived on all her years.

‘Leon, old friend, it is good to see you again,’ she said, rough hands gripping my big shovels between hers. Her eyes were almost colourless, yet I felt I could still glimpse a slight sparkle of the young beauty I’d seen in her photos on the sideboard.
‘You are well, I trust?’
She shook her head and let go. ‘I cannot sleep, I worry.’ She waved a hand at a letter on the dark wood mantelpiece, resting against the heirloom clock.
‘May I?’ I asked, picking it up.
She nodded. ‘Read it.’
The paragraphs were in Castilian and repeated in Valenciano. Not as flowery as many official letters.

‘Then tell me what we must do,’ she said.
A tall order, I thought, as I waded through the jargon. Thankfully, the Benitez home would not be requisitioned for the new urbanization, but the family would be required to contribute towards the infrastructure of the new dwellings. The figure stipulated was €200,000. The old English robber barons had nothing on these people. ‘What happens if you don’t have the money to pay?’

Her lips trembled and her eyes glistened. ‘Then they will take our house as payment.’
Valencia has a proud tradition, yet its politicians seem hell-bent on pulling the autonomous region through the mire. They complained about the fall in tourism and the slump in off-plan building, yet they were blinkered to the effects of the bad publicity caused by its diabolical land grab tactics.

It’s times like this when I despair of my fellow Spaniards. We’ve always shied away from authority, whether that was under the Moors, the Hapsburg and Bourbon kings or Napoleon. After years of dictatorship, we have a healthy detestation of anything that smacks of restriction or prohibition – constraints which hark back to those immoral fascist times. In a lot of ways, we have much in common with the English, and I should know, being half English: we don’t like being told what to do. I must admit, though, that my English friends seem more compliant of late, quite happy to divest themselves of many of their rights without protest or complaint.
‘Raquel,’ I said, ‘you must take legal representation. And consult Abusos Urbanisticos No! They’re taking the fight to these uncaring people. Laws are not meant to stamp on human rights. And you have every right to live in your family’s property – or be fairly compensated.’
‘Paz and his cronies are no better than those terrorists we hear about!’ Alfredo said, stooping to enter the lounge.
We shook hands and I eyed him grimly. ‘It will be a long – and perhaps expensive – process.’

‘I liked what you said about human rights, Leon. I think we should take our situation to the Court of Human Rights. I think that our homes are more important than some of the piffling cases they hear there!’
I nodded, tending to agree with him. Hurt pride in the office pales in comparison to loss of hearth and home.
‘Our neighbours, the Fusteras, will lose their house if the builders go ahead,’ Alfredo added, pacing the floor. ‘Can you believe it? The road-widening plan will make their house illegal because it will then be within the five-metre limit between property and a road!’
‘I’m no lawyer, but surely prior rights can’t be trodden on?’ It sickened my heart to see the stress in my friends.
Legal battles had begun, I knew, but the diggers had already started at the top of this valley. The marker posts and orange net fences were in place, delineating the area of the new buildings and roads. The intended road would pass behind the Benitez home, taking away many square metres of their property, without compensation.
‘I went to see the mayor in his nice new offices,’ Alfredo said. ‘After five minutes, I got words of regret and was dismissed. We stand in the way of progress, he says!’

Always, it seems, the main corrupting power in Spain is el ladrillo – the brick. Builders gain contracts and lucrative work thanks to the machinery of soborno – bribery. Still rife is nepotism, cronyism and of course mutual favours. Nothing new, there; while I’d been studying at Newcastle University, I heard about the T Dan Smith and Poulson cases of the 1970s. But here in Valencia it seemed more blatant.
Not all building firms, by any means. Alfredo was a builder, one of the many honest workers who had done wonders in our country. Ironically, one of his cousins was an architect and he’d been awarded a prestigious prize for designing a marvellous, functional yet attractive sports complex. The relatively few corrupt builders brought disrespect to the many, and it irked Alfredo.

All I could do was sympathise. Then I left them, knowing that the constant worry would gnaw at them, every hour of every day, every waking moment, and there would be plenty of those, for sleep would elude them until exhaustion took over. How I hated petty dictators who, without any thought or feeling about the consequences, ruined people’s lives with the stroke of a pen.

The damage resembled a war zone. Rubble and stone blocks were stacked in jagged heaps, while electric cables snaked everywhere. A water main gushed, capturing rainbows in the spray. Dust was only now settling. Alfredo stepped down from the bulldozer cab, gesturing. ‘He deserves worse than this.’

I nodded. Alfredo’s bulldozer had sliced Mayor Josip Paz’s large villa precisely in half.

At that moment the Mayor drew up in his limousine with his wife; she appeared distressed, while he was red-faced, moustache bristling. He was about to storm over to Alfredo and me when two Guardia cars and a van arrived and shut off their sirens.

As several Guardia stepped out of their vehicles, I recognised Lazaro, who worked for the fraud section. Staying by Alfredo’s side, I indicated the rubble on the left, where the study was laid bare. On the edge of the concrete floor, Lazaro examined a large safe, its door hanging off one hinge.

When Alfredo told me last night what he planned to do, I tried to dissuade him. Short of tying him up, it was impossible. He was determined to make a strong statement. So I broke into Mayor Paz’s council office, cracked his safe and identified all the shady deals he was involved in. I’d been surprised; like many of his kind, he’d become greedy. I took these documents and broke into the mayor’s villa and put them inside the safe in his study.
‘Señor Mayor,’ Lazaro called, ‘would you come over here, please.’ It was not a question. He knelt by the folder of papers. Incriminating papers.

Scowling, the mayor snapped at Alfredo, ‘I’ll see you in court, damn you!’ He crossed over the rubble. ‘You’ll be done for criminal damage!’
Criminal damage, I thought. Very much like that advocated by bureaucrats similar to him under the guise of official documents.

‘This is outrageous!’ Mayor Paz exclaimed as Lazaro arrested him. ‘You’ve planted these here! I left them in–’ He stopped, having already said too much.
‘See you in court!’ Alfredo called as he was escorted away to the Guardia van.


Originally published in The Levante Journal, 2008.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2013, 2014

So, if you liked this story, which is featured in my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.



David Cranmer said...

I do like the Leon Cazador stories, Nik. A fave collection I own.

Nik said...

Thanks, David. I'd like to think a few thousand others would, if they were just able to read SPANISH EYE. Thanks for the kind words, very much appreciated. :)